Infrastructure is boring. Let's face it. Plumbing lacks the glitz of Web applications, groupware, or nifty desktop software. But companies are realising that as they delve deeper into applications they do have to face the inevitable: build a healthy foundation or be damned forever to a life of keeping your organisation's structure upright.
In the past few years, directories - in their simplest form, repositories of user name and address information - have been inching their way into the psyches of IT department staffs.
Although essentially databases, they have not yet acquired the hallowed status of their relational counterparts, but they are definitely being taken seriously as an essential component of a company's technological infrastructure, without which life can be extremely chaotic.
The missing link
And although some of the earliest implementations of directories have been in the messaging and networking arenas, many users are now finding that directories may provide the missing piece in the infrastructure. One application that needs that infrastructure is Internet commerce, many industry analysts say.
"Today we're at the embryonic stage of electronic commerce," says communications con- sultant Gary Rowe. He adds that, because of the relatively small number of people involved with I-commerce, it is fairly easy to find information. However, "when we think of the magnitude of electronic commerce growth, one missing element is a set of strong navigation tools and structured information that could take the form of a directory to find information on a particular company, business, and organisation."
I-commerce takes the form of business-to- business and business-to-consumer transactions, with the former expected to grow exponentially during the next few years and generate the most revenue. Although directories could add value to both types of online commerce, directories will be critical in the business-to-business scenario. One reason is that directories can provide a scalable communications mechanism, says Dan Blum, who works with Rowe.
"As business-to-business commerce grows, companies will need directories to manage information and talk to one another," Blum says.
"A directory is the single most important piece of foundation that will enable electronic commerce," says consultant Doug Simmons. "It's like putting your company in the Yellow Pages. To this point, the Web is doing very well as a kind of directory."
For example, Simmons says, if you want to find Amoco, you type in www.amoco.com and chances are that you will reach the right site. But as commerce grows, companies will need a directory that works like a phone book.
Some companies are already beginning to sense that need. REI, a US outdoor-equipment chain, launched its first online store in September 1996, according to Matt Hyde, online store manager. The site has been a success, with sales and traffic exceeding projections. So far, most of the information has been on relational databases from Oracle and IBM. But now, Hyde says, he is looking at directories to play a wider role.
Although it's still too early to say what shape they will eventually take, Hyde says that next year his company might "open the directory to several suppliers" in order to let business partners collaborate on an extranet. This might mean using the direc-tory to store digital certificates - suppliers' public keys. In a rough sense, he says, they do it today, referring to a password-pro- tected site where vendors can upload and download information.
"The seed of the concept is already there," Hyde says. Using the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), his company might be able to extend the directory and provide information to a wider group of people. Currently, REI employees use LDAP for making queries on the corporate intranet.
The acceptance of standards such as LDAP is likely to work to the benefit of I-commerce. LDAP is a lightweight version of the original Directory Access Protocol (DAP), which was designed to make enquiries to an X.500 directory.
The International Telecommunications Union's X.500 is a series of standards defining a directory structure. DAP sits on the Open Systems Interconnection stack; LDAP is designed to work on TCP/IP and is smaller and leaner. It is easier for users to load it on their machines and make queries to a directory that supports the protocol. It is, however, much more restricted in its functionality than DAP. LDAP came out of academia and into the commercial world in April 1996 when Netscape garnered the support of more than 40 vendors and announced the LDAP initiative.
The power of LDAP is in its ability to access any directory that supports the protocol, making it, in a sense, directory neutral. This initiative and its support from warring parties has given directories a new sense of urgency.
For example, now that Unilever has a healthy directory implementation, the company can use it as a competitive platform on which to build an I-commerce application. Authentication with digital certificates would be part of the application and would be rolled into the directory services, says Martin Armitage, head of the global infrastructure organisation, in London.
This could work efficiently, because X.500 is designed to manage the X.509 public-key infrastructure, Simmons says.
I-commerce requires that users have the ability to send and receive digitally signed messages in a tamper-proof environment.
But for a majority of companies, user and commerce vendor alike, the issue of directories is so far out that it is not even a blip on the radar yet.
"We're not using directory services," says Tom Eastwood, chief technology officer at SportsLine USA, an online sports information, entertainment, and merchandising company. "We have information stored across a series of machines running Actra products over Oracle."
Access is limited. Directories might become an important part of the infrastructure when suppliers are technologically savvy.
"Right now our suppliers are small enough that they have no technology other than a fax machine," Eastwood says.
"We don't necessarily see all information folding into one common directory," says Brad Haigis, product manager at Open Market, whose high-end Transact I-commerce platform allows many merchants to be hosted on a single transaction server. However, he adds that one area where X.500/LDAP directories might play out is in business-to-business commerce, where the risks of not having a good directory are far greater than in business-to-consumer transactions.
"The directory may be a benefit, but lack of a directory is not a showstopper at first because you have a contract and ongoing relationship with business partners," says consultant Rik Drummond.
But as the size of the clientele increases, so does the complexity of relationships; directories can then serve a useful role, analysts say. When you store public-key information in a directory, it becomes part of the infrastructure.
As commerce becomes more mainstream, directories will gain more importance. They will be part of an infrastructure to provide information for merchants about the interests and preferences of their clients, according to Keith McCall, director of Internet applications at Lotus.
"In push technologies, directories would play a big role. The directory would store information on users, preferences, interests, lists, and would help in pushing out information," McCall says.
Even arch-rival Microsoft shares the view about the role of directories. Not only can directories serve a White and Yellow Page function, they also can be used for keeping personalised profiles and membership information, says Steven Lurie, product manager for Site Server, Microsoft's commerce-oriented Web server. Directories with LDAP support can keep track of membership to different aspects of a store.
And if advertising is an important aspect of commerce, directories can certainly play a role.
"There is no accepted code of conduct for advertising," Blum says. "Once that's worked out, directories will become very important. To some extent we're not ready for it."
Advertisements right now are "brute forced, but in making advertising more palatable, directories could play a role" in workflow automation, Rowe says.
For example, if you define relationships and rules in an application, you have to change the application when the authorisation changes. But a directory could store all that information and not require that the application be changed.
Less brutal tactics
Giving users querying ability via LDAP will go a long way toward bringing commerce within the reach of ordinary users.
Although many experts agree that directories will likely play a key role as I-commerce takes hold, the exact role the technology will play is still unclear. X.500/LDAP directories are no doubt growing, but how widely will these standards be adopted? Already about 27 per cent of 250 large US corporations have installed these directories. An additional 10 per cent plan to install them during the next 12 months, according to a recent study.
Commerce, too, is growing in volume. But when will the two meet, if ever?
Rowe says directories will provide the underpinnings for I-commerce.
"You don't need a directory to do e-mail if I know your address. So also in e-commerce," Rowe says. ""But if you go beyond our five-person LAN, you do need a directory for e-mail. So also with e-commerce."